Freedom of the Press 2007

Months of political conflict within the government, including the dissolution of President Viktor Yushchenko’s ruling coalition and the approval of his former rival Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister in August 2006, stalled the achievement of greater press freedom in Ukraine. The legal framework, which provides for freedom of the press and speech, has generally been respected in practice following the 2004 Orange Revolution, in which Yushchenko won the presidency. However, international agencies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have reiterated the need to further develop a free and professional media environment and bring Ukrainian laws into line with European standards. Particular priorities include drafting and amending legislation on access to information and the ownership of media, as well as measures involving the broadcasting market and the creation of independent public service broadcasting. Libel was eliminated as a criminal offense in 2001, but lawmakers in 2006 offered a draft bill that would reestablish the charge, and officials continued to use civil libel suits to deter and punish journalists and media outlets.

Despite Yushchenko’s promise to make the high-profile case of murdered journalist Heorhiy Gongadze a priority of his administration, the trial of the three men charged with the 2000 slaying—Valery Kostenko, Mykola Protasov, and Oleksandr Popovych—made little progress in 2006. (A fourth suspect, senior police official General Oleksiy Pukach, remained a fugitive.) The Kyiv Court of Appeals closed major parts of the trial to the public and press, including the testimony of the defendants and government security agents. Gongadze’s family and media watchdogs criticized the move for undermining the integrity of the process and curbing public attention. An appellate panel also rejected as premature the defense’s request to seek testimony from such important individuals as former president Leonid Kuchma and Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, both of whom had been accused in a parliamentary inquiry of ordering the murder, and Mykola Melnychenko, the former presidential bodyguard whose secret audio recordings implicated them.

Reports of harassment and physical abuse of journalists who covered sensitive stories continued around the country in 2006, notably prior to the March 26 parliamentary elections. In March, unidentified men attacked Irina Ovsy, editor of Sotsialisticheskaya Kharkovshchina, a weekly newspaper of the For Union political coalition in the Kharkiv region, telling her to stop publishing the paper. Three other journalists also suffered physical attacks, one of whom was kidnapped in broad daylight, taken to a forest and beaten. Fires were also set in order to intimidate the media. One occurred in February at the office building of the independent internet newspaper Vgolos, which also contained the offices of local news agency Press-time in Lviv, both of which had criticized local politicians and reported on environmental problems. Similar attacks occurred against journalists’ homes, presumably in retaliation for criticisms aimed at local politicians. In March, the basement of Lilia Budjurova was set on fire by unidentified individuals. Budjurova, a journalist for the local TV station STB and editor of the weekly Pervaya Krymshaya, believed the fire to be retribution for a recently published list of parliament members with criminal records. The apartment of Sergei Yanovsky, a correspondent of the Kievskiye Vedomosti newspaper, was set on fire by arsonists in June; Yanovsky had previously reported on election campaign irregularities and also published exposés of local corruption.

With hundreds of state and private television and radio stations and numerous print and electronic news outlets, Ukraine’s media remained diverse. However, because many major outlets are owned by business magnates and individuals with close ties to the government, coverage is often slanted in favor of specific economic or political interests. Additionally, Ukraine’s print distribution system remains problematic and dependent on the national postal service. The government did not restrict internet access or require internet publications to register in 2006, but it had the ability to monitor websites and the e-mails of the 11.5 percent of the population that used the internet regularly.